The Yards

Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Philip Wuntch / The Dallas Morning News

The Yards doesn't go the distance. But on occasion it comes close.

The second feature of writer-director James Gray, whose Little Odessa showed melancholy promise in 1994, the film reinforces Mr. Gray's regard for actors. Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and the resurgent James Caan give performances that rank with their best.

Mr. Gray also demonstrates his strength with physical action, choreographing a chase scene that is simultaneously exciting and frightening.

But, like many filmmakers who bear the dual mantle of writer and director, he reveres his own script too much. The film has the self-conscious air of a good gangster yarn that's trying to pass for classic tragedy. When Francis Ford Coppola made the first Godfather, he kept his perspective on storytelling and let the audience discover the story's tragic impact gradually. In The Yards, Mr. Gray seems too anxious to impress the viewer with dramatic significance.

Leo Handler (Mr. Wahlberg) is the screenplay's pawn of cruel fates. Fresh out of a 16-month prison stay, having taken the rap for his buddies, Leo returns to Queens in hopes of leading a normal life. But, like Al Pacino's Michael Corleone in Godfather III, he keeps getting sucked back in.

Leo's coming-home party introduces the viewer to the multitudes of family problems. His loyal mother Val (Ellen Burstyn) has a dangerous heart condition, but tries not to weep too much. Other family members are friskier. Val's worldly sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway) has married subway mogul Frank Olchin (Mr. Caan), whose confident manner camouflages his occasionally devious motives.

Kitty's roving-eyed daughter Erica (Ms. Theron) is engaged to Leo's sneaky pal Willy (Mr. Phoenix). But in this film, each relationship has its share of emotional baggage. Erica and Leo were teen sweethearts, and, besides, the wily Willy was the chief culprit in the auto theft for which Leo went to prison.

The subway yards become the urban battleground for family traumas and bureaucratic warfare. None of the characters is entirely what he or she seems. Leo, a natural-born victim, is also capable of brutality. We know instantly that Willy is not to be trusted, but few could calculate how far Leo's distrust of him should go. And Frank is never as secure in his urban kingdom as he pretends to be. As for Erica and even Kitty, their total loyalties are to be earned the hard way.

Mr. Wahlberg is a young actor who has spent a long time in the public eye. The Yards incorporates all his identities – bad boy, rapper, preening model and surprisingly sensitive actor. The role of Leo accommodates both his brashness and his vulnerability.

Mr. Phoenix remains a seductive serpent whose forbidden fruit offers great temptation. Mr. Caan's mature presence suggests a far more authoritative patriarch than Sonny Corleone would have been, had he survived that toll booth ambush in the first Godfather.

Ms. Theron makes her character's gallery of conflicting emotions seem somehow coherent, while Ms. Burstyn's everloving ma stays on the right side of stereotype. Only Ms. Dunaway seems a mite too aware of the camera. Steve Lawrence – yes, that Steve Lawrence – neatly plays a shady borough president, making him as silken smooth as any Vegas act.

The Yards is good enough to make you eager for Mr. Gray's next film. By that time, perhaps, he will shake the self-aggrandizing touches and follow his strong storytelling instincts.